Blogging 101: A Good Reason To Drop Out.

It all started quite well. I signed up for the Blogging 101 and Writing 101 courses. I wasn’t the perfect student. Several of the assignments that I carried out I did so several days after the suggested day. And then I stopped writing at all.

A casual observer of my blogging habits in the past could have concluded that I had just ‘fallen off the wagon’ and stopped blogging because I had just not developed the habit or because the assignments hadn’t appealed to me.

But I did have a very good reason for my radio silence.

On the 20th of October 2014 M had a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. The symptoms were a blinding headache which caused her so much pain that she was curled up on our bed sobbing.

This was the start of a very scary period in the lives of our family.  This included long periods of unconsciousness, two surgical procedures (the fitting of a ‘drain’ to relieve inter-cranial pressure and surgery to treat the aneurysm which had bled) and the beginnings of a complex recovery.

Not for the first time, I was very grateful to live close to an excellent hospital (Addenbrookes in Cambridge) which, as well as being the teaching hospital for Cambridge University, is also the regional center of excellence for Neurosurgery and Trauma.

During this time I did have a couple of goes at writing a blog entry. But the issue was too big, too complex to boil down to a simple blog entry, and at the same time I was also staying in contact with the many friends and family who wanted to follow M’s progress. Phonecalls, Facebook posts and Facebook Messenger entries all had to be made and, after that lot, I often felt drained emotionally, and unwilling to say anymore about the situation.

So how are things now? M came out of hospital a week ago. It is nice to have her home. And I think being in familiar surroundings is helping her recovery. Physically she is doing well. She tires easily, but this is expected. Her memory is mixed up. She can remember things that happened before her sudden illness, but she is finding it difficult to hold on to memories of events right now. I am sure these issues will improve as time passes.

I’m going to aim to make more blog entries from now on. I may go back to the 101 courses for ideas. But for the time being I have plenty to write about!


Writing 101: Be Brief.

The letter looked like just another piece of litter until I picked it up. The name on the front was written beautifully though smudges by the dampness of the ground. But the name was meaningless to me. Looking for clues I read the letter.

Simple, beautiful and heart felt. The letter was apology, and plea. The letter told of a broken marriage, a love pushed too far, of ties that should bind stretched till they snapped.

I didn’t know who had written it, but the desperation touched me. I need to get this letter to the owner, for better or worse.

That was then. I did find the author. They reclaimed the letter, with a heavy heart. As I understand it, the recipient had thrown the letter away. It hadn’t penetrated her heart in the way it had touched mine. Too much anger and scar tissue.

I wonder where they are now?

Writing 101: Serially Lost.

I’m going to write about the loss that always barges to the front of my mind when I think about loss. This is still the case even though the loss in question happened over thirty years ago.

The being that I lost, and whose loss still leaves a hole in my heart is the dog that I grew up with. He was bought by my parents when I was four years old, and he was there at my side until I was fifteen.

In the wider world he wasn’t a special dog. He wasn’t a pedigree, but he was the dog who was there through my childhood. He was the dog who would greet me excitedly when I got home from school, the dog who would sit beside me when I was watching TV or doing homework. He was the dog who I would throw sticks for, but who would look at you as if to say ‘You threw it, you go get it.’.

And years later I realised how much I felt I owed him. I learned the strength of love, all encompassing, unconditional love, and how dogs are better at that sort of love than just about any other animal on the planet. I also learned how important it was to have someone that could listen to what you wanted to say, and they wouldn’t interrupt, and they definitely wouldn’t pass judgement on what you had to say.

When I got older Rex was getting older too. He didn’t run as far or as fast, but he still had a joy in life, in chasing cats and in finding new and interesting smells. He never got used to being left on his own in the house, and would complain vocally until one of the family was home. We suspected that it had never really occurred to him that he was a dog, and he expected human company.

Old age came suddenly upon him. He got old, and slow, and suddenly walking was obviously painful. He could hardly make it out of the door to go to the toilet. Pretty quickly we found out he had advanced cancer and my parents had the awful job of having him put down. I didn’t get to see him go. I’m never sure whether I would have wanted to, to be able to say goodbye, but I know that I will always have such strong memories of him.

Nowadays, we have another dog. It took a long time to make the decision to get a dog. A lot of thought, and one of the things that held me back for so long was the concern about leaving the dog at home during the day. Our dog gets a walk each lunchtime with our local dog walker who loves her almost as much as we do. And my daughter I can see gets as much out of her relationship with Smudge as I did with Rex.

Writing 101: A Room With A View.

On arriving at the beach the first thing to do is squeeze into a wetsuit. There are many types of beach. There are beaches for walking on with your dog, there are beaches for lying on to absorb the sun and there are beaches where you can surf.

Apparently the things that make a beach a good surfing beach all happen out in the sea. The shape of the sea floor and the prevailing tides and winds are what makes a beach have good waves. But this beach is a good surfing beach on-shore too. The fact that the wide ribbon of sand butts up against a craggy vertical cliff face gives it an insulated feel. People don’t spot the beach from the road. The people who are here know someone who knew someone else, and the word got around.

The cliff itself is magnificent when you are close up. You can see individual layers, stones and shells. Grass and small plants hang tenaciously to this surface.

The sand is golden yellow, fine and soft under your feet. Where it is wet, closer to the waterline it is darker, more solid. Walking on it leaves perfect impressions of your feet that slowly soften and crumble until the next wave washes it away.  The bay is west facing, and the sun has just passed its zenith. The afternoon belongs to me and my surfboard.

Having secured the board to my ankle I walk quickly into the sea. Salt water slides under the cuffs, wetting my calves. The immediate shock of the cool water fades quickly as the wetsuit does its job, holding a layer of water, warmed by my body, against my skin. As the water gets deeper I lower the board to float on the sea surface. Holding it, I push on. Once I’m up to my chest I jump onto the board and start to paddle outwards. The waves lift the nose of the board, but the breakers are behind me, and I can swim out to the depths easily.

Sitting up on the board, hanging my legs over each side I turn to face the bay. The sun glints on the waves and illuminates the water and the sand. Out here the cliff’s roughness is softened by distance. I can still see the layers of the rocks and soil that make up the cliffs, but not the details.

Turning to look over my shoulder I see a likely candidate for a wave I can ride. I sink back down onto the board, and begin surfing. Riding waves is a strange way to spend time. There are periods of inactivity forced on you, waiting for the right wave to come. There are moments of excitement, and even moments of terror as you lose all concept of which way gravity is pointing. Those who like it know that it is a magical experience. A way of connecting with nature, with its rhythms and its rules. Time after time I ride the board in towards the shore, then paddle back out to catch another wave, thrilling, my nerves singing with the joy of being alive, here and now.

Later, when tiredness has sapped my ability to go for another ride, I head back to shore. The sun is dipping towards the horizon, but still warming the sandy bay. Carrying the board away from the water’s edge I find a patch of sand, put my board down and then lie down. Being by the sea, being washed in its seemingly limitless expanse, and being serenaded by the crashing and splashing of its wave heartbeat is always a contemplative time for me. I think about how I love the sound and sight of waves, how lucky I am to be alive in the here and now. I think of friends and family, of the people who have touched my life over the years.  And I think about how I love to watch a setting sun sinking towards the sea, heralding the closure of a beautiful day.

The Box Trolls – A Short Review.

A quick disclaimer. This post may contain spoilers.

A Warm Hearted Animated Film.

We took my daughter and five of her friends to see this film as her birthday treat. I would consider any children’s film which manages to hold the attention of six 7 and 8 year old children for an hour and a half to be a success, and The Box Trolls definitely met that criteria. And as a bonus it was good enough that my wife and I both enjoyed it too.

The film is a stop-frame animation, though I suspect there may have been some CGI post processing. But there is a lovely section right at the end of the film where two characters are standing talking, and one of the animators begins to be ghosted into the shot as the camera pulls out. This allows you to see both the characters and the set that they are being filmed in, but also the painstaking work of the animators. The speech that one of the characters gives about someone moving his arm in tiny movements is both amusing and full of pathos.

The Story.

The story takes its sensibilities very much from fairy tale type stories. A child has been taken, and is presumed to have been killed by the subterranean Box Trolls of the title. We are given reassurance that the child is safe, and is being raised by the Box Trolls. The child grows up, becomes known as Eggs (from the name written on his box).

Then an exterminator, a social climber who longs to join a Guild devoted to the love of cheese, takes advantage of a public outcry to obtain the commission to rid the town of the Box Trolls once and for all. The Box Trolls, peaceful and kind by nature are no match for Snatcher and his unpleasant crew, and their numbers dwindle rapidly. Eggs decides that they must fight to save themselves.

In this fight it is revealed how Eggs ended up being raised by the Box Trolls, and just how wicked Snatcher can be.

As is befitting for a children’s story, the good triumph, and the bad are vanquished, and those who were uncomfortable with their involvement are given the chance of redemption.

Final Thoughts.

A great film for children that parents can enjoy too. My only complaint is that I found myself trying to identify one of the actors from their voice for almost the whole film. It was a relief when the credits came round and I was able to identify Richard Ayoade.

Dream Reader: The Beginning.

I stumbled over my own feet as I hurtled, half running, half staggering towards the tree line. I couldn’t hear my pursuers, but I knew that that was just a matter of time, and while I was here, in the open I was in danger.

My legs pumped, driven by adrenaline, but still the trees seemed to edge towards me agonisingly slowly. Maybe I wasn’t hearing them because my head was filled with the sound of my panting and the thrum of the blood pumping.

How had it come to this? I wasn’t a bad guy. I hadn’t killed anyone. But still men in uniforms would be massing to find me as soon as they realised that I wasn’t home.

I began to run through the process in my head even as I continued my hell for leather sprint for the woods. They would arrive at the apartment. Not getting an answer they’ll have had to wait for clearance before battering the door down. That would have given me a few minutes.

Having swept the little apartment and realised I wasn’t hiding in a cupboard they will have gone for my tech. I’d been ready for this. The whole system was set up to cover my tracks, and as long as they had waited for back up the system would have cleaned itself up. Every user account sanitised, the plan had been to return the machine to tabula rasa. I hoped the data scrub was as thorough as I’d planned, otherwise others would be in danger too. Of course I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. The blank accounts were password protected, the discs encrypted.

After that, they would start looking for me. Of course, the street cams would help them with that. Ever since big data became a reality everyone was followed wherever they went. Everything from face recognition to gait analysis had meant that a citizen could be found even if they had left their smart kit at home. To try and evade the cameras I’d been living a lie for the last year. Every time I left home I had a small stone in one shoe. It was just enough of an irritant to make me walk a little oddly. I hoped it would be a big enough change to put the system off. Today I’d left the house in normal shoes, both feet comfortable and ready to run. I knew that once the auto-track came up blank they would start the more arduous process of pulling the files, watching me when I hit the street, tracing me from one camera to the next. It had been busy, I hoped that I’d blended in.

Suddenly my mind was back in the present. The trees were finally closing around me. At first I kept up the same pace. At the edge the trees were thin and I would easily be seen from the open ground. I needed to get deep into the brush. I only started to slow down when the dry foliage began to push back, Newtonian reaction hindering my headlong thrust.

I stopped, leaning against a tree. My breathing was ragged, and suddenly loud in this quiet place. As my heart began to slow and my panting receded I strained to hear any activity. I had no idea what my next step was going to be, where I could go. I could scarcely believe I’d managed to get this far.

And then I heard it. Apparently the drones were much quieter than the planes which used to traverse the sky before the end time. Now there wasn’t anywhere for planes to go, so the drones were the only flying objects that the city still had. And they were the sole preserve of the Goverment and Military.

It sounded quite a long way away, and looking up the trees were dense. I was probably in danger of stepping into a clearing if I made a run for it. I would be better either staying put or moving slowly. I decided to keep on moving, carefully looking at the trees ahead. The burning in my legs and the constriction in my throat were soon forgotten as I kept advancing. Now was the time to think beyond simply going on the run. I had to draw up a plan, and soon.

The drone was getting closer now, its engine note steady and ominous. Turning to try and locate it I took my eye of the path and suddenly tripped. As I arced towards the ground I saw the culprit, a thin wire across the path. Even as I slammed into the ground, I heard two people break cover and move to each side of me. Initially neither of them spoke, then the one on my right knelt on the space on my back between my shoulder blades. The one on the left leant forward and whispered “They’re very close. Come with us and don’t say anything”.

I was in no position to argue as I felt the cool plastic of cable tie handcuffs close around my wrists. Then I was picked up with apparent ease and placed back on my feet. Now I could see I was between two people of my height, though the one who had held me down was almost comically stocky. Before I could take in anything more I was pushed away to one side, deeper into the woods. The combination of panicked running and having just fallen bodily to the floor had left me disorientated and I had no idea where we were in relation to where I had entered the trees. But my companions seemed to know exactly where they were going.  And within a few minutes they stopped me in a small glade. I made as if to talk before the smaller of the two men held a finger to his lips. Concentrating on the one man I didn’t notice until it was already too late that his companion had a small syringe. It stung as he jabbed me in the leg, but I didn’t have any time to react. I suspect I collapsed like a rag doll.

I have sometimes fantasised about writing. I can imagine that seeing something you have written is immensely exciting. But it is also scary. I wrote the above as it felt like something I could get behind putting on paper. At this point it says nothing about what the crimes are that mean the protagonist needs to be on the run. I read a lot of dystopian fiction when I was a teenager and young adult, and I guess that is sort of where it is going. A lot of the books I read then have dated quite badly. The worlds of 1984 and Brave New World for instance have some features which we would recognise (mass surveillance and high levels of psychotropic drugs), but lots that haven’t come true. There is always the space for dystopia fiction which draws on the societal state when the story is written. The mass surveillance of the 21st Century is something that we buy into, often entirely voluntarily, but most people would be shocked by how much we share, and what the risks are. Maybe a story called 2041, a world where the computers look after you every need, often meeting it before you have really realised it was a need at all. What are the risks.

I think the younger me reader would have liked this. And I hope they would have wanted to read the rest.

Blogging 101: Dream Reader.

I’m a voracious reader. Or at least, I aspire to be. Last year (2013) I set out to read a book a week for the year. I didn’t quite make it. But I continue with a similar aim even now.

I read a whole range of books, sometimes going through periods where I read lightweight books about zombies or comedic trifles, but at other times I read more serious books. This was even more the case when I was younger, when reading was less of a luxury, and I aspired to be more widely read. I went through phases of Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, Iain Banks and 19th Century classics (Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte).

Some of these writers I loved for their story telling, some for their audacity with language and some for the breadth of ideas they conveyed. I remember reading ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and marvelling at the invention of a teen slang which is then used so skilfully that it never needs to be explained, and which was so self supporting that I would find myself thinking in Nadsat after I had finished reading.

My dream reader would be either my younger self, or Anthony Burgess himself. And if I were ever to write a long piece for proper publication I would want it to have elements that echoed Burgess himself.

One of the things I always thought most remarkable about Iain Banks as a writer was the thought that ‘The Wasp Factory’ was his first novel. And that seemed like and incredibly audacious beginning for any author. If you haven’t read it, then go, read and remember that this was the debut novel. You will see what I mean.